The week in seafood: shortages and high prices put customers and restaurants on alert
By Molly Reid, The Times-Picayune
May 28, 2010, 5:02AM
At Buster's Place in Covington, prices for raw oysters as well as any dish containing shrimp and oysters have gone up due to the rising cost of seafood.For oyster lovers and the restaurants that cater to them, these are strange days. With the Gulf of Mexico still filled with oil one month after the BP rig explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered an environmental catastrophe, diners and restaurateurs still are unsure whether a seafood apocalypse is nigh.
Some, such as Parkway Bakery, have created a stir among the faithful by removing oysters from the menu.
Facing shortages and high prices, particularly for shrimp and oysters, other restaurants have substituted ingredients or raised menu prices. Some have kept their prices firm and swallowed the extra cost of higher-priced seafood. Some long-standing eateries with strong connections to seafood suppliers have had no problems with availability, but have begun stockpiling seafood in cold storage as a precaution.
Here is what eight restaurateurs -- from white-tablecloth institutions to neighborhood seafood joints -- had to say at press time on Wednesday about shelling out oysters and serving the seafood-loving public this week:
713 St. Louis St., 504.581.4422
The city's oldest restaurant, which invented Oysters Rockefeller more than a century ago, has not had problems getting oysters, though the price has increased by $2 a gallon, said executive chef Michael Regua. The restaurant so far is eating that extra cost to keep menu prices the same.
Finding shrimp, however, has been more difficult, Regua said. To fight the threat of a serious shortage, last week the restaurant leased a cold storage unit and stocked it with 3,000 pounds of local shrimp.
"We're hoping that's going to last us ... about three months," said Regua, who added that he knows of several other New Orleans restaurants that are stockpiling frozen seafood.
"The best thing for us to ensure that we can give a Louisiana product out to the public is to put them in cold storage."
The oyster bar is the centerpiece of the Bourbon House Bourbon Street, where a chalkboard lets diners know exactly where their bivalve was harvested.Bourbon House
144 Bourbon St., 504.522.0111
Known for its raw oyster bar, which features a blackboard listing the precise sources of the day's catches, the Dickie Brennan-owned Bourbon House has "not had any problems as of yet" in procuring fresh oysters, said Wesley Janssen, the restaurant's marketing manager.
"We have a great relationship with P&J Oysters, so we haven't had a problem yet, but that's mainly because all the beds east of the Mississippi (River) that were closed right at the beginning are open now," Janssen said.
As part of the New Orleans Oyster Festival, the restaurant is going forward Thursday with an oyster-wine pairing event that will offer guests a wine flight of six different whites, along with a half-dozen raw oysters. Diners and a panel of celebrity judges will vote for their favorite pairings.
"We haven't made any changes to the menu. We have had a few questions about safety," he said, noting that the restaurants are keeping up with the Louisiana Seafood Marketing and Promotion Board's testing updates.
"We have a blackboard in our oyster bar area, and we always put what area the oysters are coming from. There's an oyster map at our oyster bar too, so people can see what area they're coming from."
A half-dozen freshly fried Louisiana oysters still sells for less than $12 at Bozo's in Metairie, but rising wholesale seafood prices are a growing concern.Bozo's
3117 21st St., Metairie, 504.831.8666
"(Oyster) prices have gone up by about 25 percent," said manager Lauren Martinsen. "We're still able to get oysters, but each day we're just not sure. We're just keeping our fingers crossed. We haven't raised our (menu) prices at all. We're hoping it's temporary.
"We actually had people come in today for oysters, because they went to a po-boy shop Uptown and they had no oysters."
The 82-year-old restaurant's longtime, recently deceased shucker, Edward Blackwell, or Mister Eddie, "would be rolling around in his grave," Martinsen said. "Oysters were his whole life, so he would be very upset."
519 E. Boston St., Covington, 985.809.3880
The north shore oyster house was forced Tuesday to increase its menu prices for "anything with shrimp and oysters" after a 30 percent increase in its supplier's seafood prices.
"We tried to hold out as long as we could, but we couldn't last that long underwater," manager Thomas Crandell said.
Because the restaurant is primarily an oyster bar that serves a lot of shrimp platters and po-boys, the price increase has "really affected us," Crandell said.
Customers initially were eager to get seafood, responding to a "while it lasts" mentality, but "now, people are a little leery," he said. "There's been a lot of talk on the news about seafood being safe. But honestly, if we have the seafood, it's safe to eat."
Frank Brigtsen, right, and wife Marna Brigtsen say they are still serving oyster po-boys at Charles Sea Foods in Harahan, but only upon request to prevent menu sticker-shock.Charles Sea Foods
8311 Jefferson Highway,
The 59-year-old neighborhood seafood joint, which owner Frank Brigtsen of fine-dining restaurant Brigtsen's took over last year, has taken oyster platters and po-boys off the menu, "because I don't think people would be comfortable with the price," but serves them upon request.
With an 8-inch po-boy selling for $15.95 and a 12-inch going for $18.95, "we feel we know the clientele (well enough) to know there would be sticker stock for some folks," Brigtsen said.
Brigtsen's has replaced the oysters in its baked seafood platter with scallops.
"In order to avoid uncertainty, we made that change and it's actually a little interesting," he said. "It forced us to try something different and think outside the box, and we're happy with the result.
"There's still a lot of uncertainty. Unfortunately, the health of our Gulf of Mexico is in the hands of BP, and that's a shame, because they're not doing a good job."
Felix's Restaurant and Oyster Bar
739 Iberville St., 504.522.4440
"Prices have definitely increased," said owner John Rotoni. "Oysters have gone up considerably -- shrimp, too. They've probably taken five different increases. I buy shrimp five times a week and I never know what I'm going to pay."
Rotoni blamed the national media for fueling anxiety about safety among consumers.
"We haven't gotten a lot of concern from the people who do come in," he said. "We don't even hear the concern because people just don't eat it. We didn't see a lot of the recent conventions."
Rotoni and the restaurant's chefs have "experimented with clams and mussels for some of our dishes," but he has yet to use them instead of oysters on the menu "because I'm still getting good enough quality -- beautiful oysters."
575 Convention Center Blvd., 504.520.8530
Despite rising prices "across the board," the seafood restaurant, which features a prominent oyster bar and photographs of early 20th-century Louisiana oystermen, has only seen a reduction in the availability of "bayou-type fish, like speckled trout and redfish," said manager Jeff Hof.
"We have made some contacts with some fishmongers in Hawaii in case things go south. We have tested their products and (gotten) fish flown in a couple times. We order it at 11 a.m. in the morning and get it the next day."
Though the restaurant has not yet had problems getting oysters, "when that happens, I probably will not import (them)," Hof said.
"We have customers that ask us every day where our seafood comes from," said Hof, of the restaurant, which is located near the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. "We tell them that we still get safe seafood from people fishing in safe areas of the Gulf and we get in additional fish from Hawaii."
1838 Napoleon Ave., 504.895.4877
The New Orlean s institution, known for its barbecued shrimp, has not raised menu prices, despite the price increase for wholesale oysters and shrimp, owner Bob Defelice said. However, the restaurant has gotten a strong whiff of national consumer anxiety about seafood safety.
"I had a customer in last night that was from California, and the waiter told me they're telling them in the restaurants in California that they are emphasizing that they are not selling Louisiana seafood," Defelice said.
"So far the availability and what we're getting is safe to eat. As long as we have the opportunity to get Louisiana seafood that's safe and available, we'll continue to serve it."
723 Dante St, New Orleans, LA 70118
144 Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA 70130
Grand Isle Restaurant
575 Convention Center Blvd, New Orleans, LA 70130